A C's Rollout: More or Less? 

Wharton's multi-staged campaign opening intersects with Herenton's latest Last Hurrah.

click to enlarge A C Wharton and wife Ruby arrive at the Election Commission - JACKSON BAKER
  • jackson baker
  • A C Wharton and wife Ruby arrive at the Election Commission

The campaign for Memphis mayor of acknowledged frontrunner A C Wharton got under way this past week with a hyper-active opening round.

It began last Thursday with the Shelby County mayor's picking up his petition at the Election Commission, continued through the opening of Wharton's Eastgate headquarters on Saturday, and persisted into the current week, with the county mayor's filing of his petitition on Monday, followed by his formal endorsement on Tuesday by City Court clerk Thomas Long, a onetime wannabe mayor himself.

Though the first two of these events drew considerable media attention, and the crowd at the headquarters opening was large and enthusiastic, the Wharton rollout was eventually overshadowed by former Mayor Willie Herenton, who won't disappear and can't be put away — and seemingly has the staying power of Rasputin and Bret Favre put together.

Speaking on the radio show of blogger/broadcaster Thaddeus Matthews Monday afternoon, Herenton announced that, despite the fact that he had drawn a petition to run for his old job, he would not become a candidate for mayor in the October 15th special election.

Nor, said Herenton, would he support his onetime campaign chairman Wharton, with whose policies the former city mayor said he disagreed. One case in point was the particular strategy Wharton is pursuing to achieve consolidation — one that excludes the two separate school systems, city and county.

Wharton will be the next mayor, however, Herenton said. "The only person" who could prevent that, the ex-mayor said, was "Willie Herenton," and he himself would be bending his energies to achieving victory in the 9th District congressional race against incumbent Steve Cohen.

"He [Wharton] ought to thank me [for not running]," Herenton said. He added later that, if he had run against Wharton in the special election, "I'd have had to beat up on him real bad."

The former mayor said also that he did not intend to endorse any of the other candidates in the large field that has now declared for city mayor. He devoted considerable time in the broadcast to pejorative statements about Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery, who would not win and did not deserve to win, he said.

Herenton insisted that his declared race for the congressional seat now held by Cohen, whom he had endorsed in 2006, was a reality and that he would begin his campaign for the office in earnest in January.

Asked by Matthews whether he stood by his characterization in the Flyer's July 2nd issue of Cohen as an "asshole," Herenton affirmed that he could think of "no better term" to describe the congressman, whom he also termed a "hypocrite."

Herenton said he had been told by several former Jewish supporters that they could not support him in his race against Cohen. "I respect that," said the former mayor, who went on to say that blacks were unique as an ethnic bloc in that they allowed themselves to be divided.

Though Herenton had been less than flattering toward a man who, he said, was neither a leader nor a real mayor, he had still, in effect, called the October 15th special mayoral election for the county mayor, contending that Wharton might get as much as 65 percent of the vote in what is already a teeming field.

So, in a left-handed-compliment sense, Wharton came out ahead in the aftermath of Herenton's three-hour talkfest with Matthews on KWAM.

And so, oddly enough, did two other candidates not beloved of the ex-mayor. In a detailed accounting to Matthews of reasons why he reluctantly ran for a fifth mayoral term in 2007, Herenton listed as the most compelling reason this one: "Carol Chumney, had I not been in that race, would have been your mayor, and I felt that would have been disastrous for Memphis."

Chumney may end up purchasing that sound bite and running it on radio and TV spots — "disastrous" or no "disastrous." For the conventional wisdom is that the then maverick City Council member owed her 35 percent second-place finish in 2007 to the incumbent mayor's presence in that race.

For years in the run-up to the 2007 race, Chumney had cast herself as Herenton's chief nemesis in city government. (She also was something of a nemesis to many of her council-mates and to a staffer or two, but that's another matter.) She was so clearly a foil to a mayor whose popularity was wearing thin that she, not former MLGW head Herman Morris, became the designated alternative.

Indeed, had Morris not been a candidate, Chumney might actually have had a chance at a majority. (To be sure, the same might have been said of Morris had he been able to run one-on-one.)

Absent Herenton to play off against, Chumney's defiant — and somewhat abstract — insistence on change might not have resonated so well with the voters. She would have had to run a different sort of campaign, one more geared to positive assertions and specific proposals. And her history of clashing with colleagues might have come more to the fore.

So it was that the burden of having to run without Herenton to do the dozens on was regarded by some as a serious problem for Chumney in this year's special-election race, especially since acknowledged frontrunner Wharton, whatever his derelictions might be, was too smooth and popular a figure to serve well as a substitute villain.

To the rescue, Willie Herenton! The former mayor's blanket assertion that he had run mainly to keep Chumney from winning in 2007 was pure gift, a wholly unexpected repackaging of the Joan of Arc persona her supporters had draped around her two years ago.

There seems little doubt that the status of Lowery, who had plainly floundered during his first week in office, was elevated when Herenton chose, as an explanation for his picking up his own petition week before last, to recast the mayor pro tem as a menacing, almost irresistible force requiring nothing less than a maximum resistance effort by ex-mayor Herenton.

That gave Lowery renewed viability as the official anti-Willie of this year's race, a potentially formidable role he earned not by making attacks but by being the object of them. Though still a long shot, Lowery actually benefited from Herenton's public animosity.

Inadvertently or not, Herenton's remarks on Monday enlarged Chumney in a like manner. And this potential rejuvenation of her stature came at a time when the former councilwoman had been largely absent from the public eye, a virtual non-presence for the last several weeks, with her campaign finances a question mark.

The other candidates in the mayoral field must be jealous. At least one of them, professional wrestling eminence Jerry Lawler, understands the value of grudge matches and polarized role-playing in the building of a gate and a following. He and several others would surely welcome being stigmatized by a similar intervention from Herenton.

It might be their best — indeed, their only — chance of dealing with professional good-guy Wharton.

And, by the way, longtime bad-guy wrestling manager Jimmy Hart, the Mouth of the South, was one of the well-wishers in attendance last month at Herenton's official farewell ceremony. Was that coincidence or what?

• Although Republican state representative Brian Kelsey of Germantown, now unopposed in GOP ranks, would seem to be the likely successor to former state senator Paul Stanley in District 31, which comprises parts of East Memphis, Cordova, and Germantown, he'll have competition from at least one Democrat, activist Adrienne Pakis-Gillon. Pakis-Gillon is a member of the Shelby County Democratic executive committee. A graduate of Mississippi State University with a degree in political science, she was a delegate to the 2008 Democratic national convention and has worked in several political campaigns, including those of A C Wharton.

Kelsey is currently under pressure from party-mates to resign his House seat now, so as to facilitate an early special election for his own seat and prevent the Democratic majority on the Shelby County Commission from appointing a Democratic successor to start the 2010 legislative session as interim House member from District 83, which Kelsey has represented.

Governor Phil Bredesen last week issued a writ for the state Senate special election, allowing the primary date to coincide with the October 15th special mayoral election in Memphis. The general special election will follow on December 1st.

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